The Urgency of Educating Ourselves in Self-Defense

by Raúl Zibechi

When the system has devolved into death. When capitalism is synonymous with risk to life, the environment, and the peoples. When the great works to accumulate capital go hand in hand with feminicides and genocides, we should stop to think about how to stop this system in order to defend life.

Even those of us who have known for a long time that capitalism is on a the slippery slope of war against the peoples– permanent undeclared wars–find it difficult to find ways to act, collectively, to put a stop to the madness that seeks to make life a mere commodity.

First of all, we reject symmetries. To oppose war with war is not a good way to go, because the dead are always the same: native peoples and blacks, women and youth of all skin colors, peasants, workers and the whole range of the underclass. The recent experience of Latin American wars–I am referring to the so-called revolutionary wars– should convince us that symmetry is the wrong way to go.

But we also reject stillness and the pacifism of turning the other cheek, both operational (as well as war) to the genocidal and feminicidal system. Because capitalism is not going to fall on its own, by natural death or by the supposed laws of economics, history or whatever. The system must be overthrown. The question is how.

A first step is collective self-defense, which first of all requires being organized. There are many ways and means of self-defense, as taught by the Latin American peoples who have created the most diverse forms of self-defense to protect themselves from paramilitary groups, the police and the armed forces, but also from large mining companies.

We have been taught history incorrectly. Or we have learned it incorrectly and we must recover it. I have just learned that the English suffragettes of the early 20th century had self-defense groups, thanks to the work of the French feminist Elsa Dorlin*.

Part of the movement, which refused to resort to the law because it saw the state as the main instigator of inequalities, took courses in jiu-jitsu (a defensive art with a stick). Collective self-defense, Dorlin argues, politicizes bodies, without mediation, without delegation, and without representation (p. 112).

In a recent interview, Dorlin highlights something related to self-defense that is as true for the French yellow vests as it is for the young people of Cali, with whom I was able to share training spaces these days: a turning point is reached when power disregards the lives of certain people. These are lives that have understood that they are no longer worth anything and that they can explode in the silence and indifference if they do not revolt (

Large sectors of the population need to defend themselves collectively, because they have neither power nor capital. We can call them by many names: those at the bottom, the disposable, inhabitants of the zone of non-being, surplus population; that portion of humanity that only exists when it rebels.

It is worth recalling the recent assertion made by the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy about the Palestinians: If they do not use violence, the whole world will forget about them (

Not all self-defense, he points out, uses violence, but that depends on collective decisions. It seeks above all to ensure collective survival, for which it is essential to stop accumulation by dispossession/fourth world war against the peoples: mega-mining, monocultures, mega infrastructure projects and urban real estate speculation. In short, all the ways that exploit life to do business .

Self-defense, or common care, has a self-educational dimension of its members and of the peoples and neighborhoods that have decided to defend themselves. The system has mutated, to the point that it is capable of turning the most intimate emotions into merchandise**. Participating in collective self-defense should help us deal with these new modes of accumulation by dispossession.

The new generation of young Zapatistas are trying to use the Internet in a different sense than the one designed by the system. With this I intend to insinuate that self-defense works both in material defense, placing limits on the violent, and in subjectivities, unlearning the modes of consumption imposed with much more subtle modes of violence, but which still dispossess us of our feelings and identities.

Finally, self-defense is an artform of life in the face of a system of death. It is a way of walking through obstacles, teaching us to continue being peoples and human beings. Not to conquer something like power, but simply to continue walking as the very lives that we are.

* Self-defense. Una filosofía de la violencia, Txalaparta, 2019.

**Eva Illouz (comp.) Capitalismo, consumo y autenticidad. Las emociones como mercancía, Madrid, Katz, 2019.

This article was published in La Jornada on April 8th, 2022. English translation posted by Schools for Chiapas.

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